On May 24, 1822, South American rebel forces under the command of General Antonio José de Sucre and Spanish forces led by Melchor Aymerich clashed on the slopes of Pichincha Volcano, within sight of the city of Quito
, Ecuador. The battle was a huge victory for the rebels, destroying once and for all Spanish power in the former Royal Audience of Quito.
By 1822, Spanish forces in South America were on the run. To the north, Simón Bolívar
had liberated the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, part of Ecuador) in 1819, and to the south, José de San Martín
had liberated Argentina and Chile and was moving on Peru. The last major strongholds for royalist forces on the continent were in Peru and around Quito. Meanwhile, on the coast, the important port city of Guayaquil had declared itself independent and there were not enough Spanish forces to re-take it: instead, they decided to fortify Quito in hopes of holding out until reinforcements could arrive.
First Two Attempts:
In late 1820, the leaders of the independence movement in Guayaquil organized a small, poorly-organized army and set out to capture Quito. Although they captured the strategic city of Cuenca on the way, they were defeated by Spanish forces at the Battle of Huachi. In 1821, Bolívar sent his most trusted military commander, Antonio José de Sucre, to Guayaquil to organize a second attempt. Sucre raised an army and marched on Quito in July, 1821, but he, too, was defeated, this time at the Second Battle of Huachi. The survivors retreated to Guayaquil to regroup.
March on Quito:
By January 1822, Sucre was ready to try again. His new army took a different tactic, swinging through the southern highlands on its way to Quito. Cuenca was captured again, preventing communication between Quito and Lima. Sucre’s rag-tag army of approximately 1,700 consisted of a number of Ecuadorians, Colombians sent by Bolívar, a troop of British (mainly Scots and Irish), Spanish who had switched sides, and even some French. In February, they were reinforced by 1,300 Peruvians, Chileans and Argentines sent by San Martín. By May, they had reached the city of Latacunga, less than 100 kilometers south of Quito.
Slopes of the Volcano:
Aymerich was well aware of the army bearing down on him, and he placed his strongest forces in defensive positions along the approach to Quito. Sucre did not want to lead his men straight into the teeth of well-fortified enemy positions, so he decided to go around them and attack from the rear. This involved marching his men partway up Cotopaxi volcano and around Spanish positions. It worked: he was able to get into the valleys behind Quito.
The Battle of Pichincha:
On the night of May 23, Sucre ordered his men to move on Quito. He wanted them to take the high ground of Pichincha volcano, which overlooks the city. A position on Pichincha would have been difficult to assault, and Aymerich sent his royal army out to meet him. Around 9:30 in the morning, the armies clashed on the steep, muddy slopes of the volcano. Sucre’s forces had become spread out during their march, and the Spanish were able to decimate their leading battalions before the rear guard caught up. When the rebel Scots-Irish Albión Battalion wiped out a Spanish elite force, the royalists were forced to retreat.
The Spanish had been defeated. On May 25, Sucre entered Quito and formally accepted the surrender of all Spanish forces. Bolívar arrived in mid-June to joyous crowds. The battle of Pichincha would be the final warm-up for rebel forces before tackling the strongest bastion of royalists left on the continent: Peru. Although Sucre was already considered a very able commander, the Battle of Pichincha solidified his reputation as one of the top rebel military officers.
One of the heroes of the battle was teenage Lieutenant Abdón Calderón. A native of Cuenca, Calderón was wounded several times during the battle but refused to leave, fighting on despite his wounds. He died the next day and was posthumously promoted to Captain. Sucre himself singled out Calderón for special mention, and today the Abdón Calderón star is one of the most prestigious awards given in the Ecuadorian military. There is also a park in his honor in Cuenca, featuring a statue of Calderón bravely fighting.
The Battle of Pichincha also marks the military appearance of a most remarkable woman: Manuela Sáenz. Manuela was a native quiteña who had lived in Lima for a time and had been involved in the independence movement there. She joined Sucre’s forces, fighting in the battle and spending her own money on food and medicine for the troops. She was awarded the rank of lieutenant and would go on to become an important cavalry commander in subsequent battles, eventually reaching the rank of Colonel. She is better known today for what happened shortly after the war: she met Simón Bolívar and the two fell in love. She would spend the next eight years as the Liberator’s devoted mistress until his death in 1830.